Written Across My Heart: For Sandy Hook Promise | Kevin McClave’s Fundraiser

I launched a fundraiser on my daughter’s 9th birthday. It will run through December 14, 2015.

Miley was 6-years-old and in 1st grade on December 14, 2012. As we sat a safe distance away from the unfolding events in Newtown, I felt a sad affinity for those parents who weren’t as lucky as we were. As lucky as we are. Make no mistake, luck is all that separates us from them.

I’ve written about this in previous entries. It’s something I know I will carry with me for the rest of my days.

Generally speaking, this Crowdrise fundraiser supports Sandy Hook Promise. No matter how much is raised, that goal will be reached.

I wanted to try and really stretch, though.

If we reach the $5,000 goal I have set for this fundraiser, I will get a tattoo, specially designed (TBD), that incorporates the Sandy Hook School logo, a heart, and the number “26.” This tattoo will be inked over my heart. Forever.

I am 51- years-old. I have no tattoos, nor do I want any otherwise. I do, however, carry with me the events of December 14th, 2012. I remind myself daily how lucky we are. The tattoo will simply be a visible symbol of that.

I will pay for (or perhaps have time & talent donated for) the tattoo. None of the proceeds from this fundraiser will be used for that.

If we hit $20,000 for Sandy Hook Promise, I will also have the 26 names of those lost at Sandy Hook tattooed down my arms. 13 on each arm. Forever.

These are very aggressive goals, but Sandy Hook Promise is doing very important work.

Sandy Hook Promise is a national non-profit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.

Based in Newtown, Connecticut, its intent is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning tragedy into transformation.

SHP uses a multi-faceted slate of programs and practices, centered around issues of mental health, anti-isolationism, gun safety, advocacy, and policy, in an attempt to protect children and prevent the senseless, tragic loss of life.

I will say again, and I can’t say enough, that the only thing that separates those of us with our loves still with us, from those who have suffered unspeakable loss, is pure dumb luck. I am lucky. I hope you are lucky, too. I believe with that luck comes a responsibility.

Thank you for your help.


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Win Anyway

I’m putting myself out there on this one.

This home demo from 18 years ago (of a song written 20 years ago) is about as rough as they come. As I like to say, as a musician I made a good lyricist. This is the only demo of this song I have, so…

I wrote the song with a particular view of beating the odds, bucking the system, climbing the mountain. Mainly, it expresses my world view that some things are worth fighting for, or against, regardless of the chances of winning. It also expresses my personal view that nobody but me tells me what I’m capable or incapable of doing.

In more modern times, this song has been hanging around in the back of my mind as one particularly suited for the gun control movement. A protest song in that grand tradition. We shall overcome.

But I haven’t really done much about that idea.

So, today I am.

For any of you who write songs, I offer this up as a co-writing opportunity long after the fact. Please feel free to have at it. Use the melody, the lyrics. Use a line. A word. The title. It is my hope that you can hear through the performance to something resonant. It has always felt unfinished to me, so finish it if you will.

Or, let it stay as it is. I fully realize some songwriting attempts are dead ends, and deserve to stay in the dustbin.

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try.

A Broken Path In A Broken World

“I think I’m in a unique position to be able to not give a shit what people think. Who’s going to stop me?”Gretchen Peters

IMG_20140918_181427Later this year, barring something unforeseen, I will observe the most frustrating and humbling of anniversaries. I will be five years unemployed.

Five years.

This is not how I wish it to be, nor have I been quietly accepting my situation. I have applied for hundreds of positions in my field, walking distance from home, and as far away as Chicago. I’ve interviewed in the District of Columbia and Baltimore, Ithaca and Poughkeepsie, Purchase and Buffalo (twice). Of course, I’ve had a good many interviews right here at home in Syracuse, as well.

I’ve been willing to step backward in terms of career path, to live away all week from the people who are my life, hoping to steal a day and a half with them on weekends. I’ve brought my decade and a half of experience, my successes, my talent, my outlook, and my intelligence. I’ve brought my integrity and my loyalty and my vision. I’ve brought my lifelong record of overcoming adversity and striving to make this world a better one.

Nobody wants me.

The irony here is that my chosen field, the not-for-profit development field, needs people like me desperately.

If you go in to a room of fundraisers and mention “Donor Centered Fundraising,” you will most assuredly get nods of recognition from most in the room. The problem being that knowing something and doing something are not one and the same.

Fundraising is based, as the cliché goes, on relationships. It’s a cliché because its true. The problem is that folks who work in development, and their organizations at large, damage relationships on a daily basis. Would you keep a friend who only came around when he needed money? If you gave an associate money for a task and she never gave you any indication that task had been completed, that your money had been put to good use, would you trust that she did what she said with it? Would you trust her enough to give her money the next time she asks?

That’s why the not-for-profit development field is so nomadic. Because fundraisers churn through their “relationships” with bad behaviors. Then it’s on to the next organization and a (hopefully) new slate. A lot of my own struggles to find a position are no more than losing at an ongoing, maddening game of musical chairs. The problem isn’t only individual, it’s systemic, but it can only be changed by individuals.

Here at home, we’ve been fortunate to have been able to financially weather this loss of the larger portion of our household income. Many families have not. I tell myself consciously every day that, while things may not be ideal, we are lucky. Damn lucky.

With that good fortune comes responsibility. Make no mistake, while it seems my profession has turned its back on me, my resolve to change the things I see in need of change remains strong. I will not go quietly.

Who’s going to stop me?

My Most Important Job

I have known since I was very young that the most important thing I would ever do, should I be so blessed to have the opportunity, was to be a good father.

Fatherhood, parenthood, is sometimes about hard choices. It’s about consistency and a 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week vigilance. It is the constant push and pull of knowing when to pull close and when to let go. In grand strokes, it’s about striving to make the world better for our kids, while helping them to grow to be a constructive presence in that better world.

Reading an op ed from Sandy Hook dads Mark Barden and David Wheeler this morning, I was reminded again of something David had said in the unthinkable days following the events of December 14, 2012. As a father, they are words that rang deep and true for me. They are words I have tried to push down when they come up, at least to some degree, so as not to be swallowed whole by them.

In talking about the loss of his 6-year-old son Ben, and good intentioned people telling him and wife Francine that they “can’t imagine” the pain the parents were enduring, David said that he wants us all to be able to imagine it. That only in imagining it will we create the will for truly transformational change.

That is the thing that dares not speak its name.

The truth is, I haven’t been very successful at avoiding my own imagination. I am most often aware of how lucky we are, how lucky I am, and of the general fragility of life. Other times, out of nowhere, I am stricken cold by a flash of what could happen.

Yet, we must imagine.

It wasn’t until members of Congress could look in to the already-gone eyes of a dying Robert Kennedy that they broke a deadlock and acted to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968.

I’m sure you have seen the statistic. As I write this, there have been 74 school shootings since December 14, 2012. One thing that the Sandy Hook shootings accomplished was to create a more active and mobilized gun control movement. Organizations like Sandy Hook Promise, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Mom’s Demand Action are acting as centralized points of activism and unified protest.

Even more than the cohesive effort, however, this ongoing battle requires courage.

We have unfortunately seen too often courage from victims’ families in the sheer will of facing another day, and trying to create something good from something so horrible. We must all be courageous. We must, as RFK put it, risk the “disapproval of our fellows.” Most importantly, we must be courageous enough to imagine the unimaginable.

We must change.

Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there. May our children live in a safer and more just world.

Trying

Laying a rose at RFK's grave, 1994I realized something this morning.

I was reflecting on my first visit to Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite (posted in a Throwback Thursday pic I uploaded to Instagram earlier). It’s hardly the first time I have reflected on such things, but today I had a realization of something that has been true for a long time, but that I guess I just found the right words to describe.

Whatever empathy I have within me was formed long before I made that deep and meaningful connection to Robert Kennedy’s legacy as a young adult. I can trace my character traits, good and bad, back to certain people in my past (and present). All the good I may possess within me is thanks to someone else. It is those folks who instilled those things in me, who planted those seeds. It was then up to me to keep the seeds alive.

My empathy, though, was learned the hard way. The bullies of my youth, who mercilessly taunted and mocked me for something I could not change, taught me well what it means to be treated as less-than, with scorn and with ridicule. More to the point, they taught me how that feels.

I remember it in some way every single day. I just try to turn it upside down. I couldn’t bear to know I’d made someone feel even a fraction of that feeling, and I go out of my way to try to make sure that I don’t.

So, whatever empathy I may possess has been there a very long time, but it was RFK who put the fire beneath that empathy. Who’s memory keeps it at a slow boil. Bobby Kennedy, or more accurately the legacy he left behind, taught me not just to care, but what doing something about it looks like. In the same way my grandfather taught me what a gentle man looks like, or my mom taught me a work ethic, Bobby showed me how to speak up, and that we must. We can’t change anything if we don’t first say something. All around us there are people who need us to do that.

Talking will only get us so far, but I’ll let the man himself take it from here:

Of course, if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems. It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief — forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.

My first visit to Arlington Cemetery was almost 20 years ago. I have been back to Bobby’s gravesite several times since. Each time I have a little chat with him, almost always consisting of only a couple of words.

“I’m trying.”

Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay

Candle burningIt’s happened again.

Another gay teen has taken his own life because of bullying.

“My name is Brandon Joseph Elizares and I couldn’t make it. I love you guys with all of my heart,” read the note he left behind before he committed suicide on June 2nd in Texas.

Brandon was 16. He will always be 16.

We are, it seems to me, supposed to be better than this. We shake our heads in sadness, or disgust, or because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. Brandon’s school, his mom has said, apparently did all it could to stop the bullying he suffered. Where were the peers who could have stepped in? Where were the leaders and champions? Where were the allies? Where were the friends?

I am pleased to have reconnected with a good friend from high school over the past few years. We grew closest in our senior year at Onondaga Central and the summer after. He did not come out as gay until years later, and as we lost touch as tends to happen when life moves on, I didn’t become aware of this fact until shortly before getting back in touch with him.

We had lunch while I was on a business trip in 2009. In addition to the general catching up were some more serious topics. I said to my old friend that I wished he would have been able to live as “himself” back at school. To have been able to not fight a constant internal war against who he is and who he was “supposed to be.”

My friend sort of shrugged and said, “I just couldn’t stand the thought of any of you guys calling me a faggot.”

Unfortunately, the best answer to that I could muster was “I would hope that we wouldn’t have done that.”

His friends.

Now, more than ever, we need more than “hope.” We need people of character, people with moral courage, to stand up and say that enough is enough.

One of the things I believe most strongly is the old chestnut that “you are either a part of the solution or a part of the problem.” All great movements require allies not directly affected by a new order of things. Civil Wars did not erupt over the Women’s Suffrage Movement, or the Civil Rights Movement, in some part because of the participation of allies who were not women or people of color.

I have it made. I am a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man in America. I understand that with that comes great opportunity…and great responsibility.

One of the central guiding figures in my life is Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “(f)ew are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.

These young lives ending barely as they’ve begun are our national disgrace. So, too, they are our national responsibility. “The Nation” won’t stop them, though. Because this is a human problem and it requires a human solution. It requires you, and it requires me. It requires the strength of character and the courage of will to simply do what is right.

To stand up.

To speak up.

To allow each of us the chance to live our lives as we are, not as who others want us to be.

So that one day soon, tragedies like Brandon’s will not happen again.

 

Life By What We Give

Generational HandsI used to have a large framed print in my office. It had an artsy photograph in closeup of a child holding a man’s hand. The caption read, in quoting Winston Churchill:

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

This past Saturday night it was my honor to attend with my wife the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards dinner at my alma mater, Le Moyne College. In particular, I was there to celebrate the honors bestowed upon Leslie Shaw, Ph.D. ’62, who was presented the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and Gabriel Bol Deng ’07, who received the Ignation Young Alumnus Award.

Les is the Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Co-Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Lab; Interim Director of the Clinical Chemistry Lab; and Co-Director of the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative at UPenn.

All of those titles may make your head spin a bit, so I’ll boil it down for you: among numerous notable accomplishments, Les Shaw is on the cutting edge of research that is finding ways to predict, and thus significantly slow the progression of, Alzheimer’s Disease. Can those advances be far from an eventual cure?

The research on which his team works is widely collaborative. That in itself is inspiring for those of us who have read And The Band Played On and know the competitive history of medical research. I had an opportunity to tour the lab facilities with Les a few years ago. While some of the terminology was lost on me, the inspiration he drew and the excitement and purpose with which he undertakes his work was palpable.

At a time when many of his contemporaries are retired from their chosen professions, Les Shaw is still working at his…with passion mind you…striving for a healthier world. This man, doing this lives-altering work, has also been married to his beloved Mary for more than 40 years and is a proud father and beaming grandfather.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Gabriel Bol Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, having fled his village at age 10 after being separated from his parents during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He stayed as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya for about 14 years before coming to Syracuse in 2001.

We are both alumni of Onondaga Community College and Le Moyne, Gabe earning degrees in math education and philosophy. When he graduated from Le Moyne in 2007, he was named Student Teacher of the Year…in part for the work he did at Onondaga Central, where I spent my own formative years.

In 2009, the acclaimed documentary Rebuilding Hope chronicled Gabe’s return to southern Sudan, with two fellow Lost Boys, to search for their families.

Gabe has founded HOPE for Ariang to build an elementary school in his native village of Ariang in South Sudan.HOPE for Ariang The families there also have fresh water from wells drilled thanks to his efforts. The Foundation continues to raise funds for supplies, teachers, teacher training, fencing to enclose the campus, and solar power equipment.

Of all the people I’ve ever met, I can’t think of anyone who displays better the simple beauty of the best we can be than Gabriel Bol Deng. For all the harshness and darkness he has experienced and the death he has seen, he fills a room with a genuine kindness and light every time I have been in his company. He is not an inspiration because he has done great things, and will no doubt do more. It is that he has done them against seemingly insurmountable odds…and that he has done them for others.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Most of the time, life isn’t as much about what happens to you, as it is about how you respond. We all have our struggles and we all have our obstacles. Some of us become prisoners of them, even letting them define us long after those obstacles appear to be gone. Others simply will not, defining themselves instead on what they do now.

I know with certainty that I am a better man for having been in the good company of Leslie Shaw and Gabriel Bol Deng, as I try to be just a little bit more like they are.

Striving to make a life by what I give.

Wikipedia: I is the ninth letter and a vowel in the ISO basic Latin alphabet.